Posts Tagged ‘Charles Guiteau’

Now that Garfield was dead, Americans’ greatest fear was that Guiteau would get away with murder – not because he was innocent, but because he was insane.  The insanity defense was already widely known and almost uniformly despised.  Even Garfield, ten years before his own murder, had expressed deep skepticism about the plea.

So begins the aftermath of the assassination of President James Garfield from the pen of Candice Millard in her book “Destiny of the Republic.”  Charles Guiteau had shot the President in July of 1881, and the President had succumbed to his wounds two months later.

And just like clock-work and daily sunrises, Guiteau submitted his “not guilty” plea to the judge in October.  “I plead not guilty to the indictment,” Charles would say.  “The Divine pressure on me to remove the president was so enormous that it destroyed my free agency, and therefore I am not legally responsible for my act.”  In other words, Garfield’s assassin blamed God for his actions.

And so the trial, which ran from November to January, centered on Guiteau’s mental state.  The defense brought psychiatrists to the stand that, after studying Charles, found him to be crazy.  The prosecution brought even more of them to the stand to prove him otherwise.  Guiteau himself claimed that his insanity had occurred only at the time of the shooting.  He claimed that he was now sane as any man, and wouldn’t shoot Garfield (were he still alive to be shot) for any amount of money.  He believed Garfield’s doctors were the true assassins of Garfield, as their rudimentary and unsanitary treatment had ultimately killed the President (a point which was pretty sane…and pretty accurate).

Those in the courtroom (and around the country) watched the drama unfold, and most of them just wanted Charles Guiteau dead for his crime, regardless of mental condition.  And to their relief, jury deliberations lasted less than one hour.  The jury found Guiteau sane and guilty.

Even after the verdict, Charles Guiteau hoped he would be set free.  He wrote to the new President, Chester Arthur, on several occasions, desirous of a pardon.  Guiteau believed his death would “make a terrible reckoning for you and this nation.  I made you…and the least you can do is let me go.”  John Guiteau, who had defended his brother at trial, requested a stay of execution in order to gather more evidence of insanity.  All entreaties were denied.

On June 30, 1882, Charles Guiteau climbed the steps of the gallows, read some Scripture from the Bible’s book of Matthew along with a short poem, and was hanged for his crime.

Recommended Reading:  Destiny of the Republic


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In the last couple of years, the Republican Party seems to have fractured a bit.  Of course, there have always been “wings” to the party…a more conservative wing and and one with a more liberal bent.  The same holds true for the Democratic Party.  And I suppose there are more subgroups than just the liberals and conservatives.  I happen to be in the subgroup that prefers to lick postage stamps rather than peel-and-stick…I’m just nostalgic that way.

Anyways, now there’s this Tea Party, which I think is a Republican Party off-shoot…I think.  I don’t know for sure, and I don’t really care all that much, either.  We’re here for history…aren’t we?

I mention that because it provides something of a lead-in to Today’s History Lesson.  During the late 19th century, there were factions within the Republician Party.  There were Stalwarts, who either were men “marked by outstanding strength and vigor of body, mind, or spirit“, or they were more conservative Republicans who really liked President Grant and wanted him in office for a third term.

On the other side were the more moderate Republicans, called Half-Breeds (they called themselves that?!?), who liked more moderate guys, like President Rutherford B. Hayes (whose middle initial is, for some reason, extremely important).  For the 1880 elections, the Half-breeds wanted to nominate James Blaine, who apparently was more in the mold of Hayes.

Neither side liked the other’s candidate, so a compromise was reached with the selection of the “middle man”…Half-Breed James Garfield (no middle initial required).  The Vice Presidential candidate was Chester Arthur, a Stalwart.  Got that?  There’s probably more to it, but I’m certainly not an expert on the subject (I’m still working to plow through James Madison’s biography).

Garfield won the election, took office in 1881, and was promptly shot by an angry Charles Guiteau, who gave himself the title of “Stalwart of Stalwarts” (rather ironic, given the cowardly nature of his deeds).  President Garfield lived the better part of 3 months before dying on September 19th.

The next day, September 20, 1881, would see Chester Arthur (shown above) sworn in as the 21st President of the United States.

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I took today off from work, simply because as we move into a holiday weekend, about 75% of our company’s workforce will be doing the same.  And while there’s plenty to do, the prospect of a 4-day weekend was too tantalizing to pass up.  But still I ended up riding my bike to work and back home (as I’ve been doing often since April) just for the exercise.  I got a haircut, then walked out of the Great Clips to a flat tire on the car.  The valve stem had failed (it failed on one of the other tires last year).  I started changing it, but the bolts were rusted in place and I had no WD-40 (or any penetrating liquid) in the car.  And I’d left my cell phone at home…it was just a haircut after all.

So my wife’s boss very generously drove some spray to my car and (because he’s stronger than me) helped me break the bolts free.  After he left I still had to wrestle them off…any idea how hot bolts get just from the friction of removal?  I got the spare on (one of those hideous little donut tires), then made my way to Costco (where I’d bought the tires)…only to find out there was a 3-hour wait in the tire department.  I’ll go back on Monday.  I got back home at 3:30 in the afternoon (my haircut was at 11:30), thinking that a day in the office may not have been so bad.

Such are the vicissitudes of days off…anyways, I better say something historical on the anniversary of our Founding Fathers’ vote for independence.

Sometimes, in our weaker moments, we’ll think things that we shouldn’t.  When I’m driving and someone in another car acts foolishly (which I never do), I wish I was a passenger in his (or her) car so it would be easier to hang up their cell phone and hit them with my shoe.  Or maybe a co-worker oversteps his (or her) bounds of authority at your expense, and you begin plotting retribution.

Thoughts are powerful things, particularly when they don’t just stay thoughts.  I can’t name all of the famed “Seven Deadly Sins”, but at least some (lust, greed, pride, envy) definitely start out as merely thoughts.  And as long as we kill them while they remain in our brains, we’re alright.  It’s when the “translation to action” happens that the real trouble begins.  Years ago, comedian Jake Johannson had the idea of “safety rhymes”.  When talking about drive-by shootings, he joked that maybe a rhyme would prevent people from pulling the trigger.  He humorously suggested, “I’m going to shoot that guy…let’s have some pie!”

Clearly a safety rhyme may have done some good for Charles Guiteau, who had nasty thoughts running around in his head.  He had repeatedly been denied a job working in the U.S. consul in Paris, and it made him angry.  The new U.S. President, James Garfield, had been in office less than 4 months, and was putting the final touches on his Administration…and it didn’t include Guiteau.  But rather than seek gainful employment elsewhere, Guiteau let his thoughts get away from him.

On July 2, 1881, an angry Guiteau took a gun and used it to shoot President Garfield as he walked through the Washington, D.C. railroad station.  The Commander-in-Chief was hit twice, in the arm and the back.  But it was the bullet in the back that did the most damage, and ultimately took the President’s life nearly three months later.

We’ll never know what Guiteau’s life would have been like had he disposed of his evil thoughts properly.  But we know for sure that his actions cost the life of the President, and ended his own the following year on the hangman’s noose.

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The 50 years that span 1860-1910 were especially tough ones for U.S. Presidents.  The Civil War was catastrophic.  Reconstruction was painful and expensive.  The mending of a fractured Union was difficult.  The end of slavery represented (at least for the South) a real paradigm shift in labor laws.  And the beginning of an entirely new Industrial Revolution presented vast new challenges.  But on top of that, Presidents kept getting assassinated, which probably made the job even less desirable.  Lincoln in 1865.  McKinley in 1901.  And the subject of Today’s (rather brief) History Lesson:  President James Garfield.

President Garfield took the oath of office in March of 1881, but barely got his feet wet as Commander-in-Chief before calamity struck.  On July 2nd, while on his way to deliver a speech at his alma mater (Williams College), he was gunned down by Charles Guiteau at the Washington, D.C. railroad station.  And unlike the killers of Lincoln and McKinley, who carried out their deeds for ideological reasons, Guiteau’s actions were much less noble (as if shooting any President could be considered “noble”).  He was upset because he had been denied a government position as U.S. consul in Paris, a job he had asked for numerous times and had no qualification to hold.

Like McKinley’s assassination, two bullets hit Garfield, and one did most of the damage.  Like McKinley, doctors could not find the 2nd bullet, which (almost like McKinley) had lodged in his spine.  Like McKinley, it would be the rudimentary (compared to today) medical conditions that would lead to the infections that took the President’s life.  But unlike McKinley (who lived just 8 days following his shooting), President Garfield would suffer from his wounds for 80 days before succumbing on September 19, 1881.

In a rather strange turn of events, part of Charles Guiteau’s trial defense contended that the doctors were Garfield’s real killers, and the President’s death was on their heads due to poor medical care.  Fortunately, the jury didn’t buy it, and Guiteau was executed by hanging (probably with an unsanitary rope) the following June.

President James Garfield tenure, at just over 6 months, was the 2nd shortest (to date) in U.S. history.  Only William Henry Harrison, who got sick on Inaguration Day and died a month later, served a shorter term.

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